Sunday, September 18, 2016

Andrea Wulf – ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science’

After all that Nazism in the last two books, I thought this might be good to read next, being about a German (actually a Prussian) hero. To Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Charles Darwin and Ernst Haekel, all of whom acknowledged their debt to him; but not to a contemporary Anglophone audience, hence Andrea Wulf’s book, an attempt to redress the balance. Wulf puts Humboldt’s obscurity in the UK and US partly down to ‘anti-German sentiment’ following the two world wars of the twentieth century. She mentions in a footnote that Haekel found himself accused of ‘providing the Nazis with the intellectual foundation for their racial programmes’ because of his ‘stem-trees’ showing a ‘progressive path from “savage” to “civilised” races’, which separated Jews from Caucasians, but placed them on an equal footing (though there is a hierarchy, with some other extant races lower down). Perhaps Humboldt was tarred with this brush, though the argument doesn’t seem to have much to do with him. His work was more to do with what we now think of as ecology (a word coined by Haekel):
Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect. He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen. The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’.
The Invention of Nature is quite a long way from being a typical biography. This is partly because the events of its subject’s life were so unevenly spaced (expeditions in his thirties and sixties, writing in between), and partly because it is about the ideas and the legacy as much as it is about the man. A third concern is the context of the time, which is given in some detail (there’s quite a bit about the revolutions in South America in the years after Humboldt’s visit, Napoleon, and development of the USA following the Louisiana Purchase). It’s the kind of mix which doesn’t feed very neatly into a review trying to sum it all up, but for the common reader, who doesn’t bring any great amount of context to the table (for my part, I know a little about John Muir, and have forgotten a lot about Napoleon), it’s all interesting and relevant if you don’t enquire too closely what it is supposed to be relevant to. This engaging, scattershot approach does have one drawback, which is that although the energy and achievements of Humboldt are conveyed clearly, one is left a little cold about the man himself. But perhaps that is a fair response. Darwin, meeting his hero in old age, was disappointed by his incessant chatter, and as a younger man he was, if impressive, scarcely someone you’d want to sit next to at dinner:
Others feared his sharp tongue so much that they did not want to leave a party before Humboldt departed, worried that once they had gone they would be the object of his snide comments. Some thought Humboldt was like a meteor that whizzed through the room. At dinners he held court, jumping from one subject to another. One moment he was talking about shrunken heads, one acquaintance remarked, but by the time a dinner guest, who had asked his neighbour quietly for some salt, had returned to the conversation, Humboldt was lecturing on Assyrian cuneiform script. Humboldt was electrifying, some said, his mind was sharp and his thoughts free of prejudice.
Humbolt’s life’s work was mostly based on an expedition to South America between 1799-1804, spent climbing mountains, crossing plains, observing volcanic eruptions and one enormous earthquake in the first year. For many years after his return to Europe he tried to arrange a similar trip to the Himalayas, but the East India Company wouldn’t grant him permission to go. In 1829 he travelled instead to Russia, through the Urals and (in an unauthorised 3000-mile detour) on to the Altai mountains and back along the Chinese border. While travelling he would measure incessantly, like a good scientist, and came to important conclusions about the effect of climate, and altitude, on vegetation in different areas of the world (not just vegetation – he most impressed the Russians by predicting, correctly, where they would find diamonds in their own soil). The crucial thing was the wide scope of his enquiry, which was in sympathy with (and inspired) the English Romantic poets:
Coleridge [lamented] the loss of what he called the ‘connective powers of the understanding’. They lived in an ‘epoch of division and separation’, of fragmentation and the loss of unity. The problem, he insisted, lay with philosophers and scientists such as René Descartes or Carl Linnaeus, who had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting, classification or mathematical abstraction.
Humboldt did his share of collecting, as Byron noted:
Lord Byron immortalized Humboldt in Don Juan, ridiculing his cynometer, the instrument with which Humboldt had measured the blueness of the sky.
Humboldt, ‘the first of travellers,’ but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery’s date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
By measuring ‘the intensity of blue’:
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!
However, classification wasn’t what he was interested in. ‘Individual phenomena were only important “in their relation to the whole”’. He wanted to show how things worked together: he ‘“read” plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilisations as well as landmass.’ Expressing this lyrically was part of his method, branching out into artistic expression as a way of broadening his scientific perspective (Wulf recommends Views of Nature as a good place to start reading Humboldt). Beginning to understand how this global force worked led to an understanding of how plantations and monoculture disrupted it, and he was in favour, along with American president Thomas Jefferson, of subsistence farming, as a way of maintaining diversity. We know that didn’t happen. And we know that Humboldt was right.

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